In 2007 Dr. Levin and a fellow psychologist came up with a theory to explain why the brain goes to all this trouble: By mixing unrelated memories with your revved-up emotions, the brain can actually defuse your fears while you sleep. "When you put the memories in a new context, they lose their power," Dr. Levin says. The process seems to work whether you remember your dreams or not.
But it's worth holding on to those dream images anyway -- long-dead relatives, those elephant houseguests, the smelly cafeteria from your elementary school, all mixed together -- what the heck does that mean? I don't know. Neither did Sigmund Freud, or that friend of yours who's into astrology, or the dream dictionary on the Internet. Only the dreamer can understand the dream, says Deirdre Barrett, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and editor-in-chief of the journal Dreaming. There are no simple answers or one-size-fits-all interpretations. Basically, your dreams are personal to you. A thoughtful analysis of the images in them can lead to surprising insights and sometimes even life-altering decisions, says Gayle Delaney, PhD, the founding president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams.
Certain types of problems are more likely to be solved in dreams, especially ones where the answers can be visualized or where a creative approach is needed. Novelists have dreamed up plots and characters, she says. Computer programmers stuck on a bit of code have envisioned watching the program run. Students have dreamed up answers to homework problems, and at least one person discovered a creative way to arrange furniture in his cramped apartment. "Dreams are not good at logic," Dr. Barrett says. "But they are good at helping you think outside the box."